As a quadriplegic, Karen Boersma fought for equality not just for her, but for all disabled Minnesotans.
She never knew a life without limitations, yet Karen Boersma didn't let adversity diminish her hope to make a difference for personal care attendants and disabled Minnesotans. Over her lifetime, she became a headstrong disability rights activist, testifying at the State Capitol and fighting fraudulent personal care agencies.
Boersma died March 9 at her Golden Valley home. She was 65.
"She was looking at it not from a 'poor me' kind of view, it was a human rights point of view," said friend Mary Catherine Senander of Golden Valley. "She had a profound reverence for life. ... It wasn't that a person is disabled or abled, but created by God."
Born Jan. 4, 1947, with cerebral palsy, Boersma lived most of her life from the seat of a wheelchair, becoming the first poster child for United Cerebral Palsy in 1954. She was adopted and raised by Berneice Boersma of Robbinsdale, a single mother who cared for Karen, adopted sister Jeanette and more than 250 foster children over her lifetime.
"We'd have at least five children in the house at any time," Karen Boersma told the Star Tribune in her mother's 1991 obituary.
She graduated from Marshall University High School and earned an accounting degree from Minneapolis Business College. Then tragedy struck in 1976. The 29-year-old was in a car accident, leaving her critically injured. With just the use of one arm, Boersma persevered, never wallowing in self-pity or bitterness, but kept her optimism and insisted on living on her own, Senander said.
"She was humble even though she was dependent on everyone," she said.
When Boersma believed she was wrongly fired from a job as an accountant, she filed and won a discrimination lawsuit, Senander said. Then in 2009, Boersma testified at the State Capitol about welfare fraud and the lack of oversight of personal care attendant agencies. She also was going to be a witness last year in a federal health care fraud case, but care provider John Momoh of Brooklyn Park pleaded guilty and in January was sentenced to two years in prison.
"How can one tiny little woman without arms or legs [make a difference]?" Senander said. "She had a memory like steel. She was angry people were paying for something they didn't get, just like any scam."
When she wasn't speaking out, Boersma lived quietly on her own. She'd send Mother's Day cards to friends each year. And from her window, she loved to snap photos of flowers or birds.
"She was a feisty, spirited dynamo," friend Marti Horwitz said. "She lived a full life despite her physical limitations ... despite the hand she was dealt."
Added Sadika Mujik, Boersma's personal care attendant: "She was always the happiest person, that's the part of her I'll always remember," she said.
In Boersma's quest for change, she planned to create her own personal care agency with Mujik, telling the Star Tribune in 2009 that "it's the only way I can be sure that both I and the [care attendants] who work for me will be treated with the respect we deserve."
She died before her plans came to fruition.
A memorial service will take place May 11 at Wayzata Evangelical Free Church.
Kelly Smith • 612-673-4141